thanksgiving in the kitchen

Photo by Brian Auer

Historian Tom Albala asks a good question: With all the challenges and time compression of modern life, the decline of the home cooked meal and loss of kitchen skills, the diversity of diets and food restrictions, and the fraught relationships around the table, why do we still cook Thanksgiving dinner? Why not allow the corporations to do it for us? (h/t Elatia Harris)

Good questions but his answer is questionable:

We seek social standing or, more bluntly, applause. Cooking, like everything in life, is a form of performance. We all want to be rock stars…

When we succeed as cooks, we reap praise from family and friends. Even Facebook addicts get a rush from “likes” when they post a photogenic pumpkin pie, even though none of their Facebook friends actually tastes the food. Cooking and sharing food are inseparable. Our labor in the kitchen culminates not in profit but in praise. That’s the only reason we do anything, and it makes sweating in the kitchen worth it — the more so when kith and kin have traveled over the meadow and through the woods to gather around a holiday table.

I hear this view expressed all the time by my students —that all human motives are thoroughly selfish. A little thought would show it is obviously false. Human beings do all kinds of things that don’t bring us pleasure, from rescuing people in danger to caring for sick family members to taking on challenging work for little pay. Often these are thankless tasks for which we receive little recognition. The idea that all sacrifice has some hidden pleasurable motive is utterly implausible. Of course,  pleasure and related motives like the need for admiration are powerful as well, but they are not our only motives—we are more complicated beings than that.

What human beings do seek is meaning in their activity whether it produces pleasure or not. We want our actions to matter. And so we cook at Thanksgiving because it matters to others that we do so. Even if the meal is humble and ordinary, unworthy of rock star status, the giving of hospitality is still appreciated. It isn’t admiration that is received but thanks,appreciation, an acknowledgement that the cook or cooks devoted time and attention to sharing the pleasures of eating and celebrating the joys of life.

Of course, it is lovely when we are praised or admired. But the aim of Thanksgiving cooks is to make the celebration happen, to succeed in providing the care that was promised in the offering of the meal. A meal offered only as a means of “showing off” is unlikely to be appreciated as such.

On a side note, Albala attributes his view that pleasure is our only motive to the Ancient philosopher Epicurus. But I doubt that Epicurus would so heartily endorse cooking a Thanksgiving meal as a means to pleasure, regardless of the admiration it may generate. For Epicurus the ultimate aim in life was tranquility. Although we should pursue the satisfaction of our desires, if we have desires that interfere with the pursuit of tranquility they should be discarded. I’ve cooked many a Thanksgiving meal and I would not use the word “tranquil” to describe the experience.

So by all means cook your own meal at Thanksgiving, but do it because it is your care that people want, not bravura.